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The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War (Witness to History)

4.3 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0801894688
ISBN-10: 0801894689
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

On May 22, 1856, Preston S. Brooks, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina, entered the Senate chamber. In an attack that lasted about a minute, Brooks repeatedly bludgeoned a defenseless Senator Charles Sumner with a silver-edged cane. Brooks had been infuriated by a Sumner speech that attacked slavery, southerners, and specifically, a Brooks relative, Senator Andrew Butler, also of South Carolina. The severely injured Sumner endured a lengthy recovery. Brooks was convicted but paid only a nominal fine. Hoffer, professor of history, recounts preceding events, the attack itself, as well as the aftermath in an excellent work of historical analysis. As Hoffer illustrates, the consequences were probably more significant than the attack itself. In the North, Brooks was reviled as a bully and thuggish agent of the “slave power.“ Southerners cheered him and sent him new canes. Despite the title, Hoffer does not assert that the incident “caused” the Civil War. Rather, it indicated just how deep the sectional antagonism had become, and it was one more tear in the rapidly fraying fabric of the Union. This will be a valuable addition to Civil War collections. --Jay Freeman

Review

Hoffer, professor of history, recounts preceding events, the attack itself, as well as the aftermath in an excellent work of historical analysis... This will be a valuable addition to Civil War collections.

(Booklist)

An extraordinary and valuable study of what these events of history reveal not only about America of the past, but also America of today, The Caning of Charles Sumner is highly recommended especially for college library collections and American Civil War shelves.

(Midwest Book Review)

The short length, subject, and writing style of The Caning of Charles Sumner will make this text a staple in survey and upper-level American history classes alike.

(Mary Ellen Pethel Teaching History: A Journal of Methods)

The Caning of Charles Sumner should appeal to both academics and non-academics, but it is perhaps most useful as a supplemental text in undergraduate American history survey courses. The book likewise would be a welcome addition to reading lists in graduate seminars, especially those on the Old South or the Civil War.

(Tommy C. Brown South Carolina Historical Magazine)

The Caning of Charles Sumner attempts to place the incident as well as its primary figures within their temporal, cultural, moral, and ethical contexts... In its careful analysis of the evidence and its generally balanced conclusions, the author has succeeded.

(Martin Hardeman H-Law, H-Net Reviews)

His smooth style will allow students to engage with the material.

(Christopher J. Olsen Journal of Southern History)
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Product Details

  • Series: Witness to History
  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press (March 26, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801894689
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801894688
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,282,525 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Corinne H. Smith VINE VOICE on August 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover
On May 22, 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks used a walking stick to physically assault Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner while the man was seated at his desk on the Senate floor. All Sumner had been guilty of was speaking adamantly against slavery. Truly amazing is how accurately and succinctly this one incident represented the dichotomy of America at the time. In Sumner and Brooks, we can see North vs. South, Republican vs. Democrat, Senate vs. House, abolitionism vs. slavery, law vs. honor, and word vs. action. That singular moment in Washington was a key indication that the United States was clearly headed for an official split. The Civil War was inevitable.

Professor Hoffer offers analysis of the assault and places it into the context of America's history, politics, and culture. This slim volume is easy to read but is hardly thin on content. Even readers who are not necessarily Civil War aficionados will learn much here. Beyond its own timetable, the text explains much about who we are as Americans. It is highly recommended for anyone interested in American history, the Civil War, or even merely the origins of today's red and blue states. And if you think the 21st-century political scene has become particularly tumultuous, you'll discover that it's nothing compared to what was happening in the United States in the 1800s.
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Format: Paperback
The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War is a close study of a violent event in the United States Congress that foreshadowed and exemplified the American Civil War. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist and skilled speaker, was sitting at his Senate desk on May 22, 1856 when Democratic Congressman Preston S. Brookes struck him on the head with a gutta-percha walking stick. Brookes continued to savagely beat Sumner in front of witnesses, who intervened only after Sumner had fallen unconscious and Brookes appeared determined to beat Sumner to death. Sumner had provoked Brookes' ire by speaking vividly about the abhorrence of slavery, an act seen as dishonoring both the South and Brookes' relative, Senator Andrew P. Butler. The shocking violence in America's legislative body - and the subsequent slap on the wrist Brookes received for perpetrating it - has volumes to reveal about the North-South cultural divide and the tense political climate of the era. An extraordinary and valuable study of what these events of history reveal not only about America of the past, but also America of today, The Caning of Charles Sumner is highly recommended especially for college library collections and American Civil War shelves.
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Format: Paperback
It is pretty much impossible to write about the immediate pre-Civil War years without mentioning the caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks. That less than one minute attack is properly seen as one of a series of extraordinary events--the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott Decision, John Brown's attack on Harper's Ferry, and the Election of Abraham Lincoln--that precipitated the war.

Undoubtedly the Sumner caning is important, if only because it underlined for the North the feeling that the South had become violently irrational on the topic of slavery, while Southerners felt that the Sumner speech precipitating the attack was only the most recent sign that Northerners really did despise the South and would be more than happy to inspire slave rebellions.

The problem with this book is that it is, in the end, more of a rhetorical argument than history. I continuously felt in reading it that I was sitting in a university auditorium listening to the musings of a guest lecturer. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But as scholarship, the book never really goes beyond that surface level. The author in his footnotes displays a familiarity with the standard historical works on the period, but uses no archival resources at all. As a result we get the standard snapshot profiles of Sumner and Brooks, with little beneath the surface.

There are also references that entirely slip away. The author at one point says "All of the papers examined for this study issued an editorial response" (p. 87) to the Sumner caning. But he never tells us what newspapers he is referring to, nor what they said.

In the end, I would not recommend this book for anyone who knows little about the Sumner caning. And even for those who know a lot, I would say it is a work of only transitory value.
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